Everybody Wins:

Western North Carolina’s Girls on the Run


By: Kristin MacLeod-Johnson
Photos by Karri Brantley photography

On my way into downtown to meet with the women of Western North Carolina’s chapter of Girls on the Run I see a huge, clear rainbow arching over I-240. As I drive on, the colors recede into clouds and a slate gray, though sunlit, sky. The lady in the car next to me is taking pictures with her cell phone.


“That’s about to go on Facebook,” I think aloud with amusement.


The Girls on the Run WNC office is located at 50 South French Broad Avenue in the United Way Building, an edifice housing a good number of other local non-profits. Once inside and a few steps down the hall, I hear a vibrant, girlish voice coming from an office. Instinctively, I follow it. Sure enough, I find Rachelle Sorensen-Cox talking on her phone.


“Hey! I know you!” she says, pausing from her conversation and telling me to make myself comfortable in her tiny office.


It’s true; we have met before, though never formally. We both have four-year-old daughters, and they’ve played together at the Stephens-Lee Rec Center’s Tiny Tykes program. I study Sorensen-Cox as she wraps up her phone conversation. She wears a visor and running gear, her hair is short, stylish, and blond; when she formally introduces herself, I notice her wildly sparkling eyes and wide smile.


We commiserate about the challenges of motherhood and preschoolers, why bringing your child to work isn’t always ideal, and, how, yes, picture of the rainbow over I-240 was, in fact, already posted on Facebook. She laughs and smiles a lot, and she is very positive and upbeat. It seems to me that she possesses a fire-starting ability; she did, after all, light the spark that was to become Western North Carolina’s Girls on the Run.


Let’s start at the beginning: Girls on the Run was conceptualized in 1996 by founder Molly Barker. Barker developed and delivered the curriculum with thirteen girls in Charlotte, North Carolina. The program, which serves third through eighth grade girls is, according to the website, a . . . 12 week-24-lesson curriculum combining self esteem enhancing life lessons, discussions and running games in an encouraging girl-positive environment where girls can feel free to express themselves and build confidence. The goal of Girls on the Run is to empower girls early in their lives to find strength, courage and self-respect from within, and draw upon it as they face the challenges of adolescence and adulthood.


Ten years ago, Sorensen-Cox, who worked for Asheville’s now defunct running store The Tortoise and the Hare, was, she declares, a born-again running person.


“I’d just run my first marathon and I knew I could do hard things,” she says. She saw an ad (which she still carries in her wallet) for Girls on the Run in a Runner’s World magazine) and her interest was piqued. She contacted Molly Barker about beginning a Western North Carolina chapter and, two weeks later, they met in Charlotte for Council Director Training. After that, Sorensen-Cox hit the ground running, so to speak.


In the decade since its inception, WNC’s Girls on the Run has grown from serving 30 girls to over 6,200. The program now spans 14 counties across our region; nationwide, 183 Girls on the Run chapters span the United States.


It is no small feat to begin a 501-c-3 non profit. Sorensen-Cox says she targeted key people from Asheville’s running community for support, developing “. . . an amazing team of people that made it all happen.” She also gives a shout out to the non-profit’s past executive directors Miller Graves and Molly Peeples.


“It was a community program right from the beginning,” says Sorensen-Cox.


Girls on the Run addresses self-esteem and body image, healthy eating, lifestyle habits, healthy choices, emotional health, peer pressure, bullying, anger management, media literacy, stereotyping and discrimination, the importance of good communication skills, team work, and community and civic responsibilities. The program is about breaking down gender barriers and getting outside of what Molly Barker calls the “girl box.” Girls on the Run seeks to empower young girls and teach them that they don’t have to fit themselves into any certain mold.


“We cannot stress enough how much more than a running program this is,” says Sorensen-Cox.


An example of how the Girls on the Run curriculum creatively helps young girls with gossip: they play Telephone, whispering into each other’s ears a sentence which comes full circle bearing little resemblance to the original message. Almost all of the Girls on the Run activities are silly and fun, like the girls themselves. During this gossip lesson, they also play a running game with toothpaste. One girl, with a squirt of toothpaste on her finger, runs around tagging others with the toothpaste who, in turn, do the same until everyone has toothpaste on their fingers. The girls are then instructed to put all the toothpaste back into the tube which, obviously, doesn’t work. The game becomes a metaphor for spreading gossip; it touches everyone and once it is out of the tube there’s no going back.


“One of the cool things about teaching girls,” says Sorensen-Cox, “is that girls teach each other. If you can have strong girls, then you have strong women. If you have strong women, there are strong men. It’s a trickle-down effect.”


Volunteer coaches implement the Girls on the Run’s curriculum. The head coaches are all women; so are many of the assistant coaches, though a handful of men assume this role as well. Some coaches are runners, some are not. The lessons culminate in a 5K which the coaches run with the girls. Each girl receives the number 1 to pin to her shirt. There is no winner at the completion; instead,every girl wins a medal. “It is about putting one foot in front of the other and showing up and finishing,” says Sorensen-Cox.


Three women are the core team in the Girls on the Run office. There’s Rachelle Sorensen-Cox; Audrey McElwain, Executive Director;, and Nadine Gnall, Operations Manager. They’re all moms, all part time, and did I mention that there are only three of them? How do they succeed, given the fact that Girls on the Run is huge?


“Nadine is great with the money, and Audrey becomes an octopus at night,” says Sorensen-Cox, laughing.


Sorensen-Cox and Gnall are former Girls on the Run coaches, and all three women are tall and athletic, reminiscent of what writer and Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen deems the Artemis archetype. The archetypal wild woman, Artemis is the Greek goddess of the hunt and protectress of young animals and children. Today, I get to run with all three of them.


“Take it easy on me,” I say, though the run was my suggestion.


“Me too,” chorus McElwain and Sorensen-Cox.


With marathoner Gnall leading us, we begin our journey through downtown and into Montford. The good news: right off the bat I feel completely un-intimidated by these ladies. They’re very supportive, and they all seem to possess a gentle strength. Perhaps it is this quality that led each of them to working with young girls. Somehow this run is easier than others I’ve attempted in the distant past in that I feel compelled to keep going. I mention this to my companions.


“The buddy system really works,” says Gnall.


Interestingly enough, none of these women were runners as young girls or teenagers though they were all fairly active and participants in other sports. Gnall, 42, grew up in Vermont in a family of brothers but didn’t begin running until she was an adult. McElwain, 33, an Asheville native began running with her boyfriend when she lived in Colorado. Of Boulder she says, “If you weren’t up at 7 a.m. doing some sort of physical exercise then you weren’t normal.” But it was a beautiful place to run: “I did some incredible trail runs out there,” she says. Sorensen-Cox, 40, says of her native state Utah, “We didn’t run for fun in Utah. We hunted and rode motorcycles.”


I’m breathing fairly evenly now, and I share that I love how Girls on the Run is so female-centered and that it makes so much sense to have women working with girls.


“Yes, but it is also really important to get dads and brothers running with the girls or cheering from the sidelines,” says Gnall, whose eleven-year-old daughter, Chelsea, is a Girls on the Run graduate.


This connects to another aspect of Girls on the Run,: the inclusion of the family into the mix. As the Girls on the Run Grown-up Guide (for parents and caretakers of participants) states: While children can be affected and inspired by their teachers and friends, it is the parents and caregivers who have the ultimate influence in their lives.


The age difference between third graders and middle schoolers is vast. (“It’s like dog years,” notes Sorensen-Cox.) In my memory, the middle school years are particularly painful with the litany of worries about what’s cool and what’s not, friends, clothes, and body image.


“We are trying to influence them [the girls] positively before that is solidified,” says McElwain.


All three women express how wonderful it is to see the girls blossom throughout the weeks and then complete the 5K.


“Running,” says Sorensen-Cox,”it’s really hard.”


That it is, but it is nice to know that Girls on the Run finds ways to make it less grueling.


We’re by the Art Museum now, and Sorensen-Cox, always with a sense of humor says, kids a UPS man, whose truck is parked nearby, “Give me your keys, please!”


We coast down Patton Avenue. Turning back onto South French Broad, Gnall opens her stride for the final stretch when a man, with very few teeth and sitting with his back against a signpost pumps his fist and says, “You go, girls!”


We’re done, we high five, and I feel great. A little out of breath, a little sweaty, but really, really good, like I just did it.


Leaving their office, I think about the women of Girls on the Run and the rainbow I saw earlier. Iris is the Greek goddess of the rainbow and messages. The message here is clear: We must take care of our girls.


Kristin MacLeod-Johnson is a freelance writer based in Asheville. She can be reached via email at krismac81@yahoo.com.

Girls on the Run WNC Celebrates 10 years!
When: April 29th, 2012. 2pm-4pm
Where: Wilma Sherrill Center at UNC-Asheville


GOTR Wishlist
– Monetary donations graciously accepted
– Ingles gift cards (so the coaches can purchase healthy snacks for the girls)
– Office supply paper
*A large donation of water bottles

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker